Behind Enemy Lines: Analyzing Seahawks Week 12 Matchup with Eagle Maven
Battling to stay in the NFC West title hunt as well as the race for the conference's top seed, the Seahawks will aim for a fourth straight victory when they travel to face the Eagles on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.
Gearing up for Week 12 contest between two playoff contenders, I teamed up with Ed Kracz of Eagle Maven to break down some of the biggest questions for each team, including a matchup pitting Seattle's offensive line against a talented Philadelphia defensive front.
Corbin Smith (CS): Carson Wentz has an excellent touchdown to interception ratio, but by many other metrics, he's had a somewhat down season by his standards. How much has his performance been on him and how much has been impacted by injuries and lack of skill talent around him?
Ed Kracz (EK): It’s difficult to separate the two, so I would say it’s been a little of both. Wentz has been betrayed by drops at big moments from his receivers, but the quarterback has also had his share of inaccurate throws. He was 20-for-40 in the 17-10 loss to the Patriots, and that is not all on the subpar play of his pass catchers. There have been times when it’s looked to me that Wentz has tried to do too much, perhaps a sign of his lack of trust in allowing his receivers to make a play. None of the receivers have really stepped up the way the team had hoped after losing DeSean Jackson for all but really one game this season. The Eagles spent the offseason building an offense around Jackson, a questionable tact given Jackson’s injury history.
Seattle doesn’t seem to allocate much of their salary cap to the offensive line, at least compared to the Eagles, which this season has allocated $28 million in cap space for the guys up front, compared to the Seahawks’ $13.3 million. Yet the Seahawks are ranked fourth in total offense. I know Russell Wilson plays a big role in this, but what have you seen out of the offensive line play this season?
CS: This isn’t an elite offensive line as tackle Duane Brown projected it would be in 2019, but compared to some of the units that “protected” Wilson in prior years, it’s a competent, serviceable group that has steadily improved in pass protection and still excels opening up running lanes. As scrutinized as his play has been by fans, fourth-year tackle Germain Ifedi has arguably been the most consistent all-around blocker up front, while D.J. Fluker and Mike Iupati have been decent when healthy at the two guard spots. Brown has battled numerous injuries, but coming off a bye week, he’s the healthiest he’s been since training camp opened.
The most exciting thing about this group has been depth, as Jamarco Jones filled in valiantly at right guard for Fluker for a couple of games and George Fant is as good of a backup swing tackle as you’ll find in the league right now. That’s a sign of good coaching and Mike Solari deserves a ton of credit.
Still, this will be tough, tough test for Solari's unit coming up. Though sack numbers may not indicate it, a defensive line led by Fletcher Cox, Derek Barnett, and Brandon Graham remains formidable and ranks among the league's best for quarterback hits and knock down rate. How do you see that group matching up with Seattle's offensive line and trying to contain Russell Wilson?
EK: Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz calls his line the engine of the defense, and this is where the Eagles will need to play their best in order to have a chance to win. The problem is Russell Wilson is so mobile, he erases many of the mistakes his offensive line makes. The line has played better in recent weeks and did a terrific job pressuring Tom Brady last week, which, in my opinion, is one reason why Brady did not play particularly well. That, and the fact he may be finally starting to show his age at 42.
Part of the reason for the improved play of the defensive line is the Eagles finally have their starting cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby back healthy. Their ability to cover for an extra second has helped the pass rush get home or at least force a premature throw.
Now in his eighth year, Russell Wilson appears to be having his finest season yet. Do you agree with this? Also, do you agree that he seems to be running the ball less, yet more effectively than in previous seasons?
CS: There’s no question Wilson has taken his game to a whole other level this season. He’s already been a perennial Pro Bowl quarterback during his first seven seasons and now has ascended atop the NFL’s quarterback hierarchy in his second year working with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. He leads the NFL in touchdown passes (23), passer rating (114.9), and interception rate (0.6 percent) and has managed to accomplish this after losing receiver Doug Baldwin to retirement in May and tight end Will Dissly to a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 6.
He’s also still a threat using his legs, but the biggest difference between now and earlier seasons is that Wilson has learned not to try to do too much. While he still extends plays regularly, he’s willing to go down or throw the ball away to fight another down, whereas as a younger quarterback, he would’ve tried to weave around defenders 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage and either fumbled or lost big yardage on a sack. His pocket discipline has ultimately been the biggest difference maker moving from great to elite.
After giving up 75 points in losses to the Vikings and Cowboys, the Eagles have surrendered just 34 points in their last three games. What's been the most noticeable difference in their performance? What adjustments has defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz made to help the group be more successful?
EK: As I mentioned earlier, health is a big reason behind the improved play. Mills had missed more than a year with a foot injury suffered midway through 2018 and Darby was out a month with hamstring injury. Mills came back against Dallas, so this will be his fifth game back and has looked very good. This will be Darby’s fourth game back. Having them in the lineup has allowed Schwartz to play more man-to-man defense because he trusts Mills and Darby more than he did Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones, which in turn allows him to be more creative with veteran safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod.
For a seventh-round draft pick in 2017, Chris Carson is on pace to surpass his career-high in rushing yards of 1,151 and has as many receptions this year (27) than he had in his first two seasons combined. For the record, the Eagles drafted Donnel Pumphrey in the fourth round that same year, he never played in a game, and is out of the league. Anyway, what has been the key to Carson’s improvement and how much as he helped Russell Wilson?
CS: Not everything has been rosy for Carson this season – he’s fumbled six times and lost four of them. But the Seahawks have been willing to deal with the ball security issues because he’s a complete package out of the backfield. He’s a 220-plus pound steam roller out of the backfield who seeks out contact and will bowl over defenders as well as power through arm tackles. His 22 broken tackles rank first among all backs this year and he’s generated 584 rushing yards after contact. He also can make defenders miss in space and has improved dramatically as a receiver, already setting career-bests with 27 receptions for 189 yards and two scores. He’s one of the key cogs for this football team and defenders start making business decisions when they are tasked with trying to tackle him late in games, which certainly makes life easier for Wilson orchestrating the offense.
Philadelphia lost Darren Sproles for the season and Jordan Howard is nursing a shoulder injury, leading the team to re-sign Jay Ajayi. Given Philadelphia's struggles throwing the football downfield this year, how critical will running the football be against Seattle? And do you anticipate Ajayi having a big role this weekend?
EK: As of Friday, Howard still had not been cleared for contact, so he will likely be a game-day decision. I don’t expect him to play. Still, it will be critical for the Eagles to run the ball despite being short-handed in the backfield. They went into the season with Howard, Miles Sanders, Corey Clement, and Darren Sproles as their running backs and have been reduced to Sanders, Boston Scott, and Jay Ajayi. Coach Doug Pederson tends to fall in love with statistics and I’m sure he’s looking at the Seahawks having the 28th-ranked passing defense and may once again neglect the run, the way he did in the second half of the loss to New England last week when he called for just nine running plays in the second half.
As for Ajayi, he will have a role. The size of it will depend on Howard’s availability. The Eagles probably don’t want to count on him too much since it’s been more than 13 months since he’s played in a game and is coming off ACL surgery. Not being hit in an NFL game for that long a period of time opens up the possibility of fatigue coming on quickly and risking a fumble.
What’s your take on Jadeveon Clowney and Josh Gordon? From the outside looking in, Clowney has been dominant at times and invisible at others. Is that accurate and do you believe the Seahawks will try to sign him in the offseason? As for Gordon, do you see a bigger role for him this week after having two weeks off to after his Seattle debut to learn the offense?
CS: Don’t let Clowney’s stats deceive you. He’s been highly disruptive all season long and letting him leave as a free agent would be a huge mistake for Seattle. He might not have a ton of sacks at the moment, but he’s been pressuring quarterbacks at a high rate all year despite being constantly double-teamed and he’s one of the best run defending defensive ends in the game. Coming off his best game against San Francisco, he seems to be just hitting his stride, though Philadelphia may be fortunate enough to not see him on Sunday due to a sore hip.
As for Gordon, he’s now had another full week of practice under his belt and even with Tyler Lockett ready to return from a leg injury, I anticipate he’ll be a bigger focal point in the offense than he was two weeks ago. At worst, he’s going to be one heck of a decoy to draw attention away from Lockett and DK Metcalf.
The Eagles are still just a game out of first place in the NFC East, but at 5-5, a loss would put them three games out of a wild card spot with five weeks to go. On a scale of 1 to 5 with five being utter desperation, how pivotal is this game for Philadelphia to win to keep playoff hopes alive?
EK: I would put this game at a 3 on the pivotal spectrum because the rest of their schedule softens incredibly after this game, with the outlier being a visit from NFC East leader Dallas on December 22. They have two games with the New York Giants, one at Miami and one at Washington. They would need to win out – and it is certainly doable - to get to 10-6. That may be good enough to win the division depending on how the Cowboys fare this next month. Last year, the Eagles were 4-6 after 10 games and won five of last six to reach 9-7 and get into the playoffs. Granted, they needed help on the final weekend to get there, but they got that help when the Bears beat the Vikings on that last weekend of the season.
The Seahawks’ defense is certainly not what it has been in the past and they have had their share of struggles stopping both the run and pass. What is their biggest weakness?
CS: Seattle has dealt with constant shuffling at both safety positions, but there’s no question inconsistency rushing opposing quarterbacks has been the team’s biggest flaw through 10 games. Prior to beating the 49ers, the Seahawks ranked near the bottom of the league in pretty much every meaningful pass rush stat, including sacks, quarterback hits, and pressure percentage. Several factors have played into those struggles. Defensive end Ziggy Ansah hasn’t been able to return to form coming off shoulder surgery, first-round pick L.J. Collier has done next to nothing, and star defensive tackle Jarran Reed missed the first six games after being suspended in late July.
But there are reasons to be encouraged about the defense as a whole coming off the win in Santa Clara. Quandre Diggs, who was acquired from the Lions last month, looked fantastic in his first start at free safety. Clowney dominated in the trenches, opening up opportunities for other Seahawks to record sacks against Jimmy Garoppolo. Now the million-dollar question is… was that performance a mirage? Or a sign of things to come? Guess we will have to see what transpires in Philadelphia.